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Paul Gilroy and Black Britz

David Hayes (London, openDemocracy): Paul Gilroy is, along with Stuart Hall, the foremost black intellectual in Britain of the past two generations. Stuart, pioneer of contemporary cultural studies as an academic subject in Britain, has overseen the impressive new arts initiative Rivington Place, designed by the architect David Adjaye. He has also collaborated with Paul on a new book, Black Britain: A Photographic History, published by Saqi Books.

It is a beautiful book, a work of love. Many of the rich and vivid images are full of surprise, challenging, subverting, and in some cases shredding the reader's expectations - and all the better for it. The fine essay by Paul Gilroy that accompanies them - thoughtful, profoundly respectful, even (in the truest way) reverent - is a model of its kind.

The interviews Paul has so far given to mark the book's launch include a fascinating one on Radio 3's Nightwaves on 31 October (which can be listened to here). In hearing his portrayal of the complexity and diversity of black British experience (more than London, more than militancy, more than male..), the range of influences it has absorbed and generated, the ways it has changed and been changed by the society around it, two things came across.

One was the implicit connection between Paul's subject here and the comparably kaleidoscopic experience of British Muslims (more than London, more than militancy, more than male...), which too goes far deeper and wider than its portrayal in much of the media, including well-intentioned but ultimately cliched and reductive dramas such as Peter Kosminsky's Britz.

The other was the sense of actual or impending loss as well as change in the trajectory of black people's lives even since the 1970s: of how much amnesia has already done its work, and of how the underlying dynamics of demographic change (the comparative decline in the numbers of black people of Caribbean origin against those from Africa) and cultural influence (the spread of a particular kind of ethos and behaviour-model of United States origin) seem destined to finish the job.

Together, these points raised two further thoughts. First, that there is a fruitful discussion to be had about the affinities, contrasts and learnings that could be derived from these two great - and still unfolding - "communal" moments in modern British history (as well as other, smaller ones). Second, that Paul Gilroy - whose own intellectual trajectory led from the pathbreaking There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack via The Black Atlantic and Against Race to After Empire - is raising here a new and valuably difficult seam of intellectual concern. How much does the whole cycle of political, demographic, and generational change that the new book records indicate that "this" Black British moment - including where it was in radical opposition - was also infused by and even belongs to the age of late empire, of "postcolonial melancholia"? What resources then today remain and will become available to move to the next stage in the search for dignity, equality and shared progress?

Is the strain of melancholy palpable in Paul Gilroy's Nightwaves interview (and in the one with Socialist Review [October 2007], a comment from which was chosen as openDemocracy's "quote of the day" on 1 November) a signal that the "Black Britain" he lovingly celebrates is now defusingly folding into the larger history of post-empire? And will the same thing happen - a short generation down the line - to Muslim Britain?


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